Monday, August 20, 2012

Picktures and Pieces 3: Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay

"Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" 

by Randall Auxier

I asked my spouse, “what does this sign say to you?” She said “serious car wash ahead.” Memory is a very strange thing. On our honeymoon in 1986, we ate in a diner somewhere between Mammoth Cave and Cumberland Falls. At the next table, two thirty-something men were having an enthusiastic conversation about investing in self-service car wash facilities. Given their decibel level, my bride and I couldn’t have a conversation of our own and really couldn’t help listening in. These guys were speaking in code, like listening to the Waffle House waitress call an order to a grizzled cook: “two over well, smothered, covered, and scattered, and put shoes on it.” What?

So we endured discussions of foaming brushes and spray nozzles, and so on. But they kept returning to how many bays you should have to get maximal return on your investment. Three bays or four? They discussed existing facilities, locations, initial land cost, building costs, materials, and how fast an extra bay could pay for itself. It was infinitely interesting (to them). From that day to this, and without warning, my wife will remark, as we drive down the road, “look, four bays,” to which I’ll answer “wonder what kind of nozzles they have.”

Here is a four bay facility in our little town. As you can see, it’s pretty spiffy, and I have a feeling that this investment had to be newly capitalized to include the “touchless” bay. My investor friends would say "Market share was negatively enhanced by the filling stations adding the lazy man’s option, and the detailing companies were automating too. You have to compete." You know, spruce up the place, add a bay, steal McDonalds’ color scheme.(Can you copyright a palette?)

Down the road in Carbondale, there is this rather plain six-bay model. Clearly these investors haven’t gotten the memo. Yes, they have a “touchless” bay, I mean, of course they have a touchless bay. This isn’t the 20th century, you know. But no one told them they need a fast-food color scheme to make the whole place look like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. It looks like you could raise rabbits on their roof, pick up a little extra liquidity. I briefly considered trying the place out, help pay for the extra bays. But in fact, I never wash my car. Neither does my wife. We have learned to buy cars in colors that don’t show dirt. Best is champagne colored cars, like my Toyota minvan (washed only once since 2006, and that was an accident). Good colors include white, and red. The worst color is black. Never buy a black car. You have to wash it.

I am not the customer those investors were dreaming of. But they got us eventually. A couple of years back I surprised my wife with a classic car for Christmas. She is sentimental about one she had growing up. One our favorite musicians wrote a song about that kind of car. I drove my well-kept secret up to the house on Christmas morning, with a big red bow on top (not easily attached –try it some time). In a few minutes the spouse wandered out in her robe and slippers, noticed it in the driveway, said nothing. “You have a new car,” I offered hopefully. “I have a new car?” Mildly incredulous, she filled her coffee cup and wandered back to the bedroom as both our families kindly suppressed grins. It’s pretty hard to get anything past my wife.

The car was cheap, comparatively speaking. Ninety bucks a year to insure, but there are hidden costs with such investments. For example, this car has to be washed. So I went to my friend Ron, who is an expert in classic cars (well, he has 300 old Pontiacs in his yard –yes, 300). “Ron, how should I wash this thing?” He said, “Well Randy, the old rubber seals won’t take the high-pressure guns at those self-serve places, and that’s the original paint, isn’t it? Well, you can’t take it through a machine.” He said we could use a self serve bay to wash below the windows if we were careful and never sprayed the gun full on, but the best way was a soft cloth and a bucket of soapy water, rinse with a hose and no nozzle.

Yeah right. We did that twice, I think. Too much work; takes 45 minutes. No way Jose. Then I always looked for kids raising money, but that was too unpredictable. So here we are at another place in Carbondale that did get the memo. Looks like Burger King blue to me. That guy with white truck is a Marine. He will spend the next hour spit-shining that truck. I hope he had a date, and I hope she doesn’t marry him thinking she can compete with this truck. But he would buy her a nice one and wash it without being asked. And his garage will be perfectly organized. And his grill will be clean. God help his children. They’ll be a lot like me.

Here is the spouse washing from the windows down. Note that the car is barefoot, as is the spouse. The car was made in Dallas. The spouse was made in Kentucky. They don’t like shoes in places like Dallas and Kentucky.

And here is the spouse creating small mountains of foam with the deluxe foaming brush. After initial indifference, she started liking the car pretty well, and maybe she’s even taking to washing it. Maybe I won’t have to do this after all. Maybe I will invest in a four-bay car wash. Maybe pigs will fly. (Well, they might.)

But something puzzles me. Back at the big ole six bay wash, where they were doing it wrong, they had this sign. What? Apart from its deteriorating condition, I’m wondering, with the eyes of a highway ontologist, what this sign means. Are tokens less than a dollar to buy? Must I really do math like this, combining my money with some company scrip to avoid touching anything while washing my car? This is a question that has a more general significance, I strongly suspect. I will think about it and get back to you next week.

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